Federal agencies are required to establish employee performance appraisal systems. Rules specifying the requirements for such systems are at 5 CFR 430.204. Agencies may establish more than one system for performance appraisals, although most have just one. At a minimum, these three features must have a single definition for each program: employee coverage, appraisal period length, and the pattern of summary levels for ratings of record. If multiple definitions are needed for any one of these features, separate programs must be established.

The statute requires that employees be appraised against their performance standards. It does not allow for appraising an employee by presuming that an employee is meeting performance standards. The process for appraising employees described by the regulations does not provide for any assumed levels of performance. However, this is not a requirement to generate lengthy written justifications. Agencies may choose to make recording the determination that performance meets the Fully Successful standard a very simple procedure.

There is no maximum length for appraisal periods, although appraisals generally are scheduled so that employees are provided ratings of record annually. An agency must define any limits (maximum length, minimum length, or acceptable range). Further, agencies may establish different appraisal cycles (starting and ending dates) for different employees under the same appraisal period.

Agencies may use between two and five summary levels. The most common practice is the use of five levels, with 1 being Unacceptable, 2 being Minimally Successful, 3 being Fully Successful, 4 being Exceeds Fully Successful and 5 being Outstanding—or equivalent terminology. A system in wide use at the Defense Department uses three levels, equivalent to levels 1, 3 and 5, as described below. Two-level ratings systems are commonly called Pass/Fail.

Different agency subcomponents may use differing patterns of summary levels. When the rating of record is completed at the end of the appraisal period, a summary level must be assigned. The principal reason for this requirement is that several other personnel systems and actions rely on the rating of record as a trigger or threshold (such as granting within-grade increases, noncompetitive promotions) or as an otherwise necessary input (such as for granting additional service credit in a reduction-in-force).

Performance Appraisals and Ratings

Federal employee performance appraisal regulations require that employees annually be assigned a summarizing rating that describes their performance throughout the entire year compared to the elements and standards established in their performance plans. This summarizing rating is called a rating of record and is described using summary levels.

A summary level must be assigned when the rating of record is prepared at the end of the appraisal period. A summary level can be determined at any time agencies deem appropriate and specify in their appraisal programs (such as performance rating, progress review). However, the ways in which summary levels are applied (such as granting within-grade increases and additional service credit in a reduction-in-force) are always in the context of the rating of record.

The rules include flexibility to design appraisal and awards programs that support the culture, type of work, and goals of team-structured organizations as well as those structured traditionally.

Office of Personnel Management guidance of July 12, 2019 (at www.chcoc.gov/transmittals) says that performance standards “should be sufficiently specific so that they provide firm benchmarks toward which an employee can aim his or her performance, and are not susceptible to a performance action based on whim instead of considered judgment.” However, “some degree of subjective judgment” is allowed and “supervisors may clarify and flesh out the day-to-day application of performance standards to particular workplace and job requirements, which may evolve during the appraisal period.” Supervisors should encourage employees to be involved in the development and implementation of their performance plans, the guidance added.

It further told agencies to be “rigorous” in conducting performance ratings and to “ensure only employees who have demonstrated the highest levels of individual performance receive the highest annual ratings of record and the highest performance awards.

The guidance says that in a five-level rating system, a rating of 3, or “fully successful” should be “seen as the category for employees who are meeting valid performance standards designed to deliver on what the American public should be able to expect from their civil servants.” A rating of 4, or “exceeds fully successful” should be used for “individuals who are delivering measurable outcomes for the American public in a way that is measurably beyond the standard set for fully successful.”

A rating of 5, or “outstanding” should be used for those “going significantly above and beyond daily requirements”—for example, an employee who “delivered extraordinary results or sustained a high level of performance during a highly demanding period or within a challenging environmental context, such as during a time of transition or undue pressure from extenuating circumstances or unique mission requirements.”

OPM also reminded agencies that forced distribution of employees among levels of performance (“grading on the curve”) is prohibited and that employees are to be assessed “against documented standards of performance versus an individual’s performance relative to others.”

Defense Performance Management and Appraisal Program

The Defense Department uses a performance management program called the Defense Performance Management and Appraisal Program for the majority of its civilian employees.

It features three levels of rating—level 5 (outstanding), level 3 (fully successful), and level 1 (unacceptable). Other features are: a rating cycle of April 1 through March 31 for all employees; direct involvement of employees in crafting performance standards, which have to clearly document how performance will be measured according to specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and timely criteria; at least three performance review discussions between the supervisor and employee within each cycle; early warnings if a supervisor believes performance is falling below the fully successful level; steps to take to attempt to improve performance before taking disciplinary action; and the right of employees to write self-assessments that a supervisor would have to consider in setting a rating.

There are special provisions for situations such as employees who are on detail, extended leave or military service, and those who transfer or whose supervisor changes during a cycle.

Note: Certain categories are excluded, mainly because they fall under separate appraisal systems. These include employees in the DoD acquisition workforce demonstration project and of the science and technology laboratory demonstration project; senior executive, senior scientific/professional and senior level employees; those hired under certain special hiring authorities; temporary employees, and non-appropriated fund employees.